CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUE – Riley v. California: Warrantless Celphone Searches Incident to Arrest.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUE – Riley v. California: Warrantless Celphone Searches Incident to Arrest.

Riley v. California has clarified the rules regarding warrantless cellphone searches incident to arrest.  Riley was initially convicted based on information obtained through a warrantless search incident to his arrest.  Photographic evidence from the phone was used to qualify him as a member of a gang.  Riley had no previous documented gang affiliation.  Police pulled Riley over in a vehicle with expired registration.  When riley was arrested and the car impounded, there were discovered 2 weapons and a cellphone.  The two weapons tied Riley into an earlier drive by shooting from one moving car at another moving car.  The incident was thought to be gang related.  The cellphone was also searched revealing pictures and video of Riley throwing gang signs and other indicia of gang affiliation.  The ballistics report was used to convict, and the cellphone evidence was used as a gang affiliation sentencing enhancement.

Upon Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court the issue of warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest was at question.  Was the search of Riley’s cell phone an overstep by government in violation of Riley’s 4th Amendment.  Yes, Yes it was because there were no emergency circumstances affecting officer safety nor the safety of others (Oyez, 2016).  The take away for the Criminal Justice System, specifically for law enforcement activity is that a warrant to search a cell phone is required.  The phone is seized during a lawful arrest but cannot be searched without a warrant because it is a “digital record of nearly every aspect of a person’s life” – Chief Justice Roberts.  Only a perfunctory search to make sure the phone is not a gun, bomb or knife is allowable.  A warrantless search is allowable if there is a bomb threat as well.

Doug Wiley, Editor in Chief of makes the following observations:

“Observation #1: In exigent circumstances such as immediate officer safety or the safety of innocent persons (per SCOTUS, child abduction, bomb threat), officers can conduct a search and be prepared explain those actions later in court.”

“Observations #2: Taking the time to get a search warrant for a cell phone not only protects personal privacy, but ultimately also serves to ensure that an officer’s search of a subject’s phone is not tossed out on a ‘technicality’.”

“Observation # 3: In the 21st Century, the legal system will not treat cell phones as merely phones, but as Chief Justice Roberts said, they are “a digital record of nearly every aspect of [a person’s life] — from the mundane to the intimate” that can also make phone calls.”

(Wiley. 2014)




Riley v. California. (n.d.). Oyez.

Retrieved June 6, 2016, from


Wiley, D. (2014). The Courts Decision on Cell Phone Searches, 3 Things Cops Need to Know,

Police One Online Magazine.

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